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How Are Attack Vectors and Attack Surfaces Related?

Attack vectors and attack surfaces are cybersecurity concepts that are deeply intertwined. In a nutshell, the attack surface is the sum of all attack vectors in a system or network. The more attack vectors your organization has, the larger your attack surface is.

Understanding the two very important cybersecurity concepts is required if you want to stay in the know about significant events and trends in the community. Knowing how they relate to each other will also help you keep up when reading threat reports or thought leadership articles in cybersecurity magazines that repeatedly use the terms.

A more urgent reason for organizations to understand these basic cybersecurity concepts more deeply, though, is Gartner’s prediction that attack surface expansion will be the number 1 security trend.

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Attack Vector Versus Attack Surface: Are They the Same?

We’ll discuss the differences and similarities between attack vectors and attack surfaces in greater detail below.

How Are Attack Vectors and Attack Surfaces Related?

What Is an Attack Vector?

An attack vector is a method attackers can use to exploit system vulnerabilities. Its primary purpose is to deliver a malicious payload that carries a code that can harm or steal data from a computer or network. 

Attack vectors are essentially the “hows” in the cyber attack equation, outlining the precise path an attacker takes to achieve malicious goals. They typically have these key aspects:

  • Exploitability: An attack vector targets a specific vulnerability or weakness within a system, whether a software bug, an unpatched system, a misconfigured setting, or a human user error.
  • Delivery mechanism: This describes how an attacker delivers the exploit to a target system. It may involve embedding malware into seemingly harmless files, phishing emails tricking users into clicking malicious links, or exploiting unsecured network connections.
  • Impact: The attack vector path ultimately leads to a specific outcome, which may range from data exfiltration and system disruption to complete system takeover and financial gain.

Understanding these aspects can help security teams develop and implement adequate security measures.

What Are Common Examples of Attack Vectors?

Some of the most common attack vectors include:

  • Phishing: These are deceptive messages that trick users into revealing sensitive information. They can come through email, text, or chat messages.
  • Weak passwords: Passwords that are easily cracked or guessed can give threat actors an open door to user accounts and any system or application connected to that particular account.
  • Software vulnerabilities: Attackers exploit vulnerabilities in applications. As such, updating software and operating systems (OSs)  to patch known vulnerabilities regularly is essential.
  • Outdated encryption techniques: Attackers can detect systems with outdated encryption algorithms. They can then crack the weak encryption and often access sensitive information.

These are just some examples of attack vectors. Any security weakness or issue that may serve as attack entry points are considered attack vectors.

Threat Vector Versus Attack Vector: What’s the Difference?

A threat vector and an attack vector are essentially the same thing. Both phrases refer to methods that attackers use to infiltrate systems. As such, they can be used interchangeably.

What Is an Attack Surface?

An attack surface refers to all the potential ways attackers can exploit a system. The phrase was coined in 2003 by Microsoft security expert Michael Howard when he wrote about security in software development.

In other words, an attack surface is the sum total of all attack vectors within a system. The more attack vectors an organization has, the larger its attack surface. To reduce your attack surface, you must bring down your number of attack vectors.

What Are the Various Attack Surface Types?

Organizations have different kinds of attack surfaces. They have a physical attack surface comprising servers, devices, data centers, buildings, and other infrastructure exposed to the physical world.

On the other hand, they also have digital attack surfaces often categorized into:

  • External attack surface: This includes your external-facing digital assets, such as websites, applications, cloud environments, and other Internet-connected systems. 
  • Internal attack surface: Assets that are not exposed to the Internet make up your internal attack surface. These are only accessible to authorized users and usually implemented on-premises.

What Are the Common Examples of Attack Surfaces?

An organization’s digital infrastructure comprises different parts that attackers may target. Before coming up with a complete picture of their overall attack surface, security teams may need to look at each part of the infrastructure individually. Below are some aspects comprising the overall attack surface.

  • Software: This is a massive part of an organization’s total attack surface, especially in today’s digital business operations. Security teams must scrutinize their OSs, applications, websites, web applications, and cloud services and ensure no unpatched vulnerabilities or other attack entry points are left.
  • Networks: Whether the organization uses wireless, wired, or a combination of both connection types, it’s essential to secure these systems to prevent attackers from intercepting communications.
  • Databases: An organization’s corporate data and employees’ personal information can also be considered part of the attack surface as they are often attackers’ ultimate targets. Therefore, security teams must check any potential entry point that can provide attackers access to them.

How Do Threat Actors Exploit Attack Vectors?

Attackers usually analyze a target entity’s overall attack surface and look for cracks that can take the form of misconfigured systems, unprotected assets, or software vulnerabilities. They usually do that using sniffing tools that collect data and social engineering to gather more information about their target and the issues that could easily be exploited.

Once inside the target system or organizational network, there are two main attack paths that could be followed:

  • Active attack: Threat actors immediately wreak havoc on the target after capitalizing on an attack vector. They can deliver payloads that can damage victims’ systems and disrupt their business operations. They can encrypt and steal data, too. Whatever specific action threat actors take, an active attack is easier to detect than a passive attack since its effects are apparent.
  • Passive attack: Attackers may choose a stealthier way to infiltrate a system. Their tools may lie undetected inside a victim’s digital parameters for months to obtain information. Since they don’t actively change anything or disrupt operations, passive attacks are more difficult to detect than active attacks.

Threat actors constantly scan and map out target organizations’ attack surfaces to identify vulnerabilities they can exploit. Organizations need to act quickly to remediate vulnerabilities and reduce their number of attack vectors before the bad guys get to them.

Ready to learn more about how Attaxion can help you win the security rat race by giving you complete visibility over your attack surface? Schedule a customized demo now.

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